How to Legally Use Quotations in Your Book

by | Aug 29, 2016

Every once in a while, I get an email from someone asking about the legalities of publishing a book of quotations they find inspirational, educational, or just plain funny. Their motives are laudable; they want to share these insights with readers. Or their motives are monetary; they think a book of quotes will be easy to put together and quick to sell.

I shake my head. Using a short quote in a social media posting is one thing, but putting together a book or website that relies almost entirely on work created by others raises a wasp’s nest of legal issues. It can be done, but not without doing some homework. In fact, a lot of homework.

Simply giving credit to the original creators of the quotes is not going to be enough to protect you from copyright infringement claims. For every single quotation, you need to determine its copyright status and whether you should get permission.

Or, to break it into steps, for every quote you need to ask —

  1. How old is the quote?
  2. How distinctive is the quote?
  3. How are you going to use it?
  1. How Old is the Quote?

    If a quote was first published before 1923, then most likely its copyright has expired and the quote has fallen into the “public domain.” You may use it without getting permission. For example, you may quote Shakespeare, Jane Austin, Benjamin Franklin, and Confucius.

    But there is an exception for trademarks and advertising slogans. Trademark rights don’t expire as long as the trademark is still in use. Good to the Last Drop for Maxwell House coffee is close to a hundred years old and still protected by trademark law. For more guidance on using trademarks, take a look at Who Says I Can’t Use Trademarks?

    So, if a quotation was first published before 1923 and is not an advertising slogan that’s still is use, there is little risk is using it (although you should always give attribution). For all other quotes, let’s move on to questions 2 and 3.

  2. How Distinctive is the Quote?

    You’ve probably heard that using short quotes is safe. Usually, but not always.

    The general rule is that short phrases are not protected by copyright because they are too short to contain sufficient original expression. That’s ironic since it is harder to write something short and good than to write something long and bland.

    There is no safe-harbor rule on how many words you may quote before you get into infringement territory. I can’t say that you are safe if you use 10, 50 or 100 words, but it’s best to use only what you need. The shorter, the better.

    But there is always some legal risk, because even short quotes may be protected by copyright.

    For example, E.T. Phone Home.

    Four words, assuming you count E and T as words. Yet, a court stopped a manufacturer from selling mugs printed with E.T. Phone Home. It held that the phrase was protected by copyright.

    Courts have held that short phrases are protected if they conjure up images of a copyrightable character, such as E.T. Other examples are Bond. James Bond or Look. Up in the sky. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Superman.

    Also protected are short phrases that are distinguished by conciseness, cleverness, and insight, such as Ashleigh Brilliant’s I may not be perfect but parts of me are excellent. Eleven words! But still protected by copyright.

    Many poems and lyrics fall into this category as well.

    So if a quote, no matter how short, is highly distinctive or conjures up a larger copyrighted work, then you need to consider question 3.

  3. How are you using the quote?

    Some uses of copyrighted material are permitted under the doctrine of fair use.

    Fair use is the use of copyrighted material for a limited purpose, such as education, news reporting, commentary, research, or criticism, or a “transformative” purpose such as parody. For more information about Fair Use, see What Every Writer Ought to Known about Fair Use and Copyright.

    The line between fair use and infringement is murky. Courts consider four factors.

    1. The purpose and character of the use. Is it for commentary, criticism or educational purposes? Is it commercial? Is the new work transformative, meaning it has been altered significantly to add a new meaning?
    2. The nature of the original work. Using unpublished works is less likely to be fair use.
    3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the original work as a whole. The more you use, the less likely it will be considered fair use, especially if you use the “heart” of a work.
    4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work.

     
    Judges and juries are not predictable in how they apply these four factors, so no lawyer can guaranty that your use is fair use. Too much depends on the facts of the case, the aggressiveness of the copyright owner, and the perspective of the judge. But here are some examples.

    • If, in addition to using quotations, you add annotations that analyze the development of themes over time, then your book may satisfy the first factor as a scholarly work as be considered fair use.
    • If all you do is cut-and-paste copyright-protected quotes without comment, that won’t be fair use.
    • If you use a couple of quotes by Steven Jobs in a book discussing business management that might be fair use. But if you publish a book containing nothing but Steve Jobs’ quotes that would not be fair use. You are piggy-backing on someone else’s creation and not adding your own.
    • If you use all or a substantial portion of a work, such as an entire haiku or the distinctive lyrics of a song, don’t count on the fair use doctrine protecting you.

    Finally, using copyright-protected quotes on merchandise, such as t-shirts or coffee mugs, is not fair use. It’s too commercial. For similar reasons, I recommend against using a copyright-protected quote on a book cover.

    By the way, hymns and prayers may be protected by copyright just like any other writing. So don’t assume a hymn or prayer is in the public domain if it was written in the last hundred years. You need to do your homework.

What’s the Alternative?

The safest route is to get permission from the owners of all quotes that may still be subject to copyright protection. This is a daunting task, and there are copyright clearance experts to help you.

Or write your own pithy insights. Contribute new quotes to the world.

Now, I predict that this post will generate emails from people accusing me of trying to scare writers with legal mumbo-jumbo. Not so. I am trying to teach writers about legal risks. Writers can and should take risks, even legal risks. But be smart about them. Take risks that improve your work or your reach and avoid those that are careless or worthless.

As I often say, stay out of court and at your desk.

Disclaimer: Helen Sedwick is licensed to practice in California only. This information is general in nature and should not be used as a substitute for the advice of an attorney authorized to practice in your jurisdiction.
 
Photo: pixabay.com.

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218 Comments

  1. Stanley Jackson

    Helen,
    I’m impressed that you are answering questions 18 months after posting your article.

    I am creating an ABC picture book that, as usual, teaches letters and words together with pictures of nouns that start with each letter of the alphabet – A is for Apple, Airplane, Axe, etc. I wanted to add short quotations from well-known children’s books, one for each letter, that use words beginning with that letter — “Where’s pa going with that Axe?” (opening line of Charlotte’s Web.) (The pictures would not use the author’s illustrations or in any way make further reference to the author’s work.) The quotations would be part of the book’s educational play; children would enjoy learning the letters and words in the context of books they knew, or books they/the parents would be inspired to read – the quotations would also work as a recommended reading list.

    The point is not to profit from the quoted books, but to use a familiar/famous quotation for an educational purpose. As a practical matter, is it possible to use something famous like this for an educational purpose and be covered by fair use? Or does the inherent potential profitability of something famous trump educational purpose?

    The idea of getting permission from twenty six authors/publishers seems daunting and improbable; I am concerned that publishers would feel similarly and reject the book outright if I were to include them; all of which is enough to make me abandon the addition of the quotations, to the detriment of the final book, and its educational value.

    Thanks for your thoughts ahead of time

    Stanley Jackson

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Stanley, You most important question is whether publisher’s will reject the work if you don’t have permission. I think that’s a real possibility. The easy solution is to use quotes from works in the public domain, such as works by Beatrix Potter or Lewis Carroll. Nursery rhymes also work, but have been used a lot.

      Reply
  2. Chris Doyle

    Hi Helen! I’ll my “thank you” for this post to all of the others. What a great resource! I scanned through some other comments but didn’t land on one that asked about things like panel comics or illustrations where the owner copyright notice is included in the panel. A sample is here – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dilbert#/media/File:Dilbert-20050910.png.
    Two questions here:

    1) Is it ok to use them without direct permission? Or do I need to seek permission from the illustrator?

    2) Do I still need to site the illustration on my reference page since the copyright is included?

    Thanks again!

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Chris, Using the illustration with the copyright panel is not enough. The safer route is to always assume you need permission to use work created by others unless the work is in the public domain or your use is fair use. Merely giving credit is not enough.
      As part of that permission, the copyright owner will usually tell you how they want the credit to appear.

      Reply
  3. Anuraag Awasthi

    Thanks for the informative blog. I am writing a book on Personality Development and was hoping to put some quotes publicly available on net, in boxes (total about 35). Apart from copyright for specific quotes, is the sheer number of quotes also covered by plagiarism?

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      If you provide credit to the original author, then it’s not plagiarism. Plagiarism if when someone uses someone else’s work with giving credit.

      Reply
      • Anuraag Awasthi

        Thanks a lot. From whatever I gather from this blog and other blogs mentioned in replies, and checking on copyright notifications by publishing houses and authors, using a few quotes, upto 15 words each (max), with right attribution should be fine. Great learning. THANKS.

        Using royalty free images under Creative Commons is another slightly grey area.

        Reply
  4. Izzie

    Hi Helen,
    I have been trying to look into the legality of using a well-known quote in the front matter of my book on what would otherwise be the dedication page. I bought a picture with the quote on it and it formed the inspiration to my novel and sets the tone for the story and I’ve made references to the meaning of the quote throughout the story. However, I have since learned that there is an author attributed to it in recent years – though not earlier on in its use. I’m wondering if using the quote in this instance comes under fair use, or not. For this particular quote, I did attempt to ask the author for permission anyway to cover myself, but never heard back – so I feel in this instance I shouldn’t use it at all. But, I was wondering about it for future reference.
    Thanks.

    Reply
  5. Claudia

    I noted in an earlier post you said that the informational part of a recipe is not protected and thus the list of ingredients and steps or preparation are free to use. Is it simply a matter of ethical and moral standards that dictate receiving reprint permission from publishers of cookbooks?

    Keeping all of this in mind, can minor changes be made to recipes you receive reprint permission for without asking (i.e. writing out rather than abbreviating words like teaspoon and tablespoon, or getting rid of design elements such as capitalizations on words listed in the ingredients or instructions) ? Would an additional reprint permission request be required to make any of those changes? Would a sentence need to be added to the disclaimer/copyright page? I am writing a food guide, and the recipes I’m talking about do not conform with the others in the book.

    Your advice and insight would be appreciated.

    Happy New Year.

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Claudia, I would not be concerned if you are editing the recipe in non-substantive ways, such as changing abbreviations. As to other changes, you would have to look at the language of the permission you received to see whether changes are permitted.
      Although by copyright law, the informational part of the recipe are not covered, since you got permission you should try to comply with the terms of that permission.

      Reply
      • Claudia

        Helen, Thank you for your reply. Permission I received for the recipe that I am referring to was given by the cookbook authori/publisher with an informal “go ahead” response, so no real language to follow there. Again, the capitalizations listed on words in the recipe I mentioned are obviously design elements . Does it make sense to go one way over the other as a courtesy, including asking her if it matters?

        Thanks again.

        Reply
  6. Sean

    Hi, Helen:

    Excellent posts you have on this topic! Thanks.

    So what if one were compelled to compile a book like: “The Dumb Things People Say” …And you used quotes found on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, online forums, etc. to fill up the book?

    Terrible title, and not necessarily the best idea – just a scenario. Thoughts?

    Best,

    Sean

    Reply
    • Boyd Silken

      Yes, I have this same question too. In my particular case, the quotes would be short
      (a single sentence or less) and would not contain any identifying information.

      -BWS

      Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Sean and Boyd, You ask an interesting question. If you read the Terms of Use of most social media sites (really, who does?) it will probably say their either own all material posted or have the right to use it any way they want. So technically, both the creator of the quote and the social media site could claim they have the right to own or control the use of the quote. However, if you are using it as part of a commentary or discussion, let’s say on how people let loose on social media in a way they woudn’t dare in face to face conversations, then you use is likely fair use. And, a short quote may not be considered protected by copyright anyway. Bottom line, you need to think through the potential factors and decide how much risk there is.

      Reply
  7. Preggoquotes

    Thanks so my h for posting this! I have been wanting to put together a book of quotes from everyday people about some of their pregnancy experiences. Even though these would be pretty short quotes, am I correct in assuming I would need a permission form from every person wanting to submit a quote? If so, is there a generic sort of permission form for something like this? I found one (I think), nut I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the format. Do these type of quotes (short verbal quotes, not poetry/lyrics or published works) require a signed form? I wanted to get this ironed out right from the start so I can get forms signed right when a quote is submitted instead of compiling them all and then trying to backtrack to get everything signed.

    Reply
  8. Tirwin Bass

    I have written a work of fiction an, after each title in the book, there is a quote from a film, lyric from a song or line of inspirational speech from a plethora of sources.

    I am trying to decide whether I risk a huge legal backlash or whether I should simply remove these quotes. Do you have any insight into this particular scenario.

    Also, since the book is set in a factual location, I name businesses and locations, is this ok?

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Tirwin, To be on the safe side, you’ll need to consider the risk of using each quote. Generally, the older and shorter the quote, the lower the risk, but you still need to think through it.

      Reply
  9. Catherine Catania

    I live in a developement with a specific name (ie le Mer). Is it illegal to use the name of the development on signs i plan on making.?( Such as I love Mer.) I plan on selling them.

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Typically, the name of a city or town is not protected by copyright. If you name a resort or theme park, such as Disneyland, that could be a problem. But not a town or city.

      Reply
  10. tearsofajadedstar

    Suppose one is wishing to put together a recipe book of recipes found in fictional works. If they say the recipe is akin to a recipe found in say, one of The Boxcar Children books by Gertrude Chandler Warner, but reword it so it is not written the same as the recipe in the original work, would that fall under fair use?

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Tears, The informational part of a recipe is not protected by copyright. So the list of ingredients and the steps or preparation are free to use. If the original work contains more creative elements, such a descriptions of the taste or a story behind the creation of the recipe, then those elements may be protected by copyright and you should not use them.

      Reply
      • tearsofajadedstar

        Ah, I see. Thank you!

        Reply
  11. Mona

    Good Morning, Helen! What a great and informative article. Tank you so much. I’m saving the URL for future reference. Reading these comments has given me pause, so I’m checking with you. I have written two books for self-publishing. Both contain quotes. One is a journal with a quote on each page. The the other is an informative book with a quote in each section. I got the quotes from BrainyQuotes and other such websites. Is it OK to use quotes from these kinds of sources? Are they public domain? Your thoughts are very much appreciated!

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Mona, You need to go through the analysis I describe in the post. How old is the quote? How long is the quote? Are you using it in a way that might offend or affect the market for the original work? There’s no one answer.

      Reply
  12. Joshua

    The link to trademarks is broken :(
    I have two questions. I’m making a how to type book. Can I quote equipment user manuals? Also the book is how to pass a certification test, the name of the test is a trademarked name. Am I allowed to use it in the title and throughout the book?

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Joshua, Thanks for letting me know about the broken link. This one should work
      https://www.sidebarsaturdays.com/2017/05/20/httpwp-mep7vddb-hr/
      Regarding your proposed use of the trademark, the answer most likely is yes if your use is for educational and commentary purposes. I am more concerned about using it in the title though. Since I can’t give a definitive yes or no answer in an email and without looking at your specific use in context, it would be prudent for you to have an IP attorney take a quick look at how you are using the trademark. There are many state and local bar groups that offer free services to writers. That would be a good place to start.

      Reply
  13. Alberto

    Dear Helen,

    I’m finishing a self-help book on how to overcome stress and anxiety. I have had anorexia nervosa for quite some time in my 20s (about 20 years ago), and being a male anorexic I feel now compelled to share my own experience of overcoming the disorder and becoming a new man with the world, trying to help others.
    In the book I have included lots of quotations, typically one isolated sentence from people I admire (especially Buddha, Jesus, Einstein, Mark Twain, Nietzsche, Bernard Shaw, B. Baruch, Shakespeare, Carl Jung, the Master Yoda (yes!) and more).
    Is that fair use?
    Then I have done some of my research on wikipedia, and I wrote parts of my text based on their information, but I do no copy and paste any part of their text.
    Is that fair use?
    I thank you in advance for your kind answer, and congratulations fro your great work!
    Alberto

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Alberto, Let’s apply the two part test to each quote.
      1. Is the quote covered by copyright?
      2. If so, then is your use fair use?
      If the quotes are more than 85 years old, then the copyright has expired. You may use them without getting permission, although it is considered ethical to identify who originated the quote. This would apply to quotes from Buddha, Jesus, Shakespeare, etc.
      Also, short quotes are typically not considered protected by copyright law. So if you are using a quote that is fewer than 15 words then your risk of infringing of someone’s copyright is low.
      For anything longer than that and younger than 85 years, I can’t give you a yes-or-no answer. You need to go through the fair use analysis. This post will help. Be sure to skim through the comments. They are super-helpful.
      https://www.thebookdesigner.com/2010/02/what-every-writer-ought-to-know-about-fair-use-and-copyright/

      Reply
      • Alberto

        Dear Helen

        Thank you so much for your kind and very informative answer!

        Best regards,

        Alberto

        Reply
  14. Daisy Herndon

    Helen,
    I think this is an unusual situation. It was my understanding that anything written by an employee of the federal government as part of their work duties is in public domain. So this puzzles me. Can FDR (estate of) sue me for quoting from this e-book digitized by Project Gutenberg?

    THE PUBLIC PAPERS AND ADDRESSES OF FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT
    with a special introduction and explanatory note by President Roosevelt

    COPYRIGHT, 1941, BY FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT

    Copyright under International Copyright Union

    All Rights Reserved under Pan-American

    Copyright Conventions

    BY FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT

    note: All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce any introduction, note or title in this book, application must be made in writing to The Macmillan Company, 60 Fifth Avenue, New York, N. Y.

    MANUFACTURED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA HADDON CRAFTSMEN, INC. G^SSf^ CAMDEN, NEW JERSEY

    The material in these volumes has been

    compiled and collated by SAMUEL I. ROSENMAN Counsel to the Governor during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt as Governor of the State of New York

    I appreciate your replies.

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Daisy, You are correct that work performed by a governmental employee in their line of work is almost always considered public domain. These public papers may be a mixture of work created by FDR as President and work created at other times and in other roles. Also, any commentary would be subject to a new copyright. So there’s no easy answer. It would take some research and legal analysis to determine which portions of the book may be in the public domain.
      You say the papers are posted by Project Gutenberg. It’s likely they have made the determination that what they posted is in the public domain. They may be right or they may not be. But they do post the following warning: “Our eBooks may be freely used in the United States because most are not protected by U.S. copyright law, usually because their copyrights have expired. They may not be free of copyright in other countries. Readers outside of the United States must check the copyright terms of their countries before downloading or redistributing our eBooks. We also have a number of copyrighted titles, for which the copyright holder has given permission for unlimited non-commercial worldwide use.”

      Reply
  15. Mary

    Dear Hellen,

    Thank you for great text. I have three questions:

    I write autobiographical book. It will be marked as autobiography, but I will change all people names, physical apperances, and similar traits. Can any of those people sue me, although no one who reads will know that are them? (because they could prove indirectly in the court that are them)
    I need to use in same book e-mails that other person send me. I will paraphrase them, not quote them. How safe is it? Should I mark in book that those e-mails are paraphrased and that I am no author of them?
    I need also to paraphrase one page from unpublished e-book (from persons blog). Blog and e-book doesn’t exist anymore on web, and I don’t know persons real name. May I paraphrase that page from persons e-book and also mark in my book that I’m paraphrasing and that I’m not the author?

    Thank you very much.

    Reply
  16. Claudia

    Hello Helen,

    I’m self-publishing a small food guide book. To drive a point home, I wanted to quote one sentence directly from the book of a very well-known cookbook author and note the name of the book underneath. I did consider writing her personally and asking her permission, but I presume it would have to be acquired through the publisher, if even necessary.

    In a second scenario, I have two sentences of a quote that I came across online, made by an organization. They haven’t said anything earth shattering. It’s just that a statement coming from a respectable organization solidifies anything I say. Audiences like knowing you aren’t just throwing statements out. People seem to feel cheated when you have no reliable source backing up your commentary. I believe that this is definitely not problematic, but could be wrong.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts. .

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Claudia, In a online comment, I can’t give specific legal advice; only info. But generally, if the quotes are short and are part of a larger commentary and discussion , then your use may be fair use and the legal risks low.

      Reply
      • Claudia

        Thank you, Helen. Much obliged.

        Reply
  17. Kira

    Is there a way to legally write a book based on content from your own social media? I am wondering if I were to post a question on a social media platform (Facebook / Quora / Reddit/ LinkedIn ) can I use the answers to my question as content for a book? Or would it be easier to post a question and have people email me their response with the social media platform and question in the subject line?

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Kira, With some extra steps you should be able to use the content. First, you should get consent to use the quotes from those who respond. Second, you need to check the Terms of Use for the social media site to see if they claim any copyright or rights to the responses. I suspect a better way is to use a couple questions on social media to get people interested, then link them to your website for the rest of the questions. You would need them to click on a consent form prior to answering the questions. I suspect there are apps out there that can help you. Email would also work but be more cumbersome..

      Reply
  18. Nimat Marie

    I am writing my memoir. I use spiritual quotes from The Torah, Holy Qur’an, and Bible. This falls under “Fair use” correct? However, the quotes from the Torah have a commentary with it but I do not know who the commentary belongs too. Does this still fall under, “Fair Use.”

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Nimat, Works as old as The Torah, Bible and Holy Qur’an are not subject to copyright (although the copyright in the King James version of the Bible never expires under British law. For permissions, go here https://www.cambridge.org/bibles/about/rights-and-permissions.)
      The commentary, however, may be subject to copyright protection. If the commentary was published before 1923, the copyright has expired. If it was written or published since 1977, then it is most likely still protected by copyright. In between those years, protection depends on a number of factors, too many to deal with in a post comment.
      Using your quotes in a memoir may or may not qualify as fair use. It would depend on how you are using the quote.
      If you are still in the writing and rewriting part of your memoir, then don’t worry about these issues for now. The quotes may be helpful for you during the writing process. You need to consider these issues if you decide to publish the memoir. Until then, there is no risk.

      Reply
  19. Priscilla Ferrari

    Thank you! This was very informative. I’m designing a diary (for selling) and wanted to use motivational quotes related to the topic (writing). The problem is that many of them don’t have the author credited and internet isn’t helping me with that. For example, there is a quote credited to Einstein, but I know its not from him and I have no idea of its true origin. Others have multiplied through social networks to the point that the author can’t be traced.
    What do you think I should do? Should I avoid all of those just to be sure?
    Thank you!

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Priscilla, You are taking all the right steps. Researching the quotes and trying to identify the source. If the quotes are short and you’ve done your homework, then there is probably only a small risk in using them. Plus, if your use is educational and commentary (using the quote as part of the lessons in your work), your use may qualify as fair use. That also reduces the risk of an infringement claim.
      Some writers are comfortable taking those risks; others are not. So your decision depends on how comfortable you taking the risk.

      Reply
      • Priscilla Ferrari

        Thanks a lot for the answer. I’ll try to take the ideas and rewrite some of the quotes so I can be 100% sure.

        Reply
  20. D Rayk

    Thanks for this amazing community. Very helpful as a writer. Question: We are a start-up that creates educational books about fun topics for kids. We are writing one about super heroes in which we share the history of how super heroes began (comics) and some of the key characters (e.g. first super hero, first woman super hero, etc.). Can we use the character names (Superman, Wonder Woman, etc.) in the text? We make sure to put the registered symbol after them and we mention their creators (e.g. Marvel, DC Comics, etc.). Otherwise, the book would be pretty boring and not factual. I imagine it would be a mess to try to get “permission” for this from the giants so hoping this is ok. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      D, What you are describing sounds like fair use since you are discussing the creation and history of the characters and not borrowing the characters to create new stories.

      I would get nervous about using any character images on your cover or advertising unless they are in the public domain. That’s too close to a trademark use.

      The devil is always in the details, however. Before you actually publish the book, you should have an attorney give it a once over to make sure ALL your uses of copyrighted work fit comfortably into the fair use category. On works such as these, writers tend to throw in a few extra images or quotes for decorative or eye-catching purposes. Those would not be fair use.

      Reply
      • D Rayk

        Hi Helen, many thanks for this very helpful reply. The book will be sold at major retailers. Although it is for educational purposes for the little ones, it will be for commercial use. We’ve been careful not to use any images at all of the characters and are simply mentioning their names. Does the commercial use change anything for you on this regarding Fair use? I’m finding the educational rule on this confusing.

        Thank you,
        Donna

        Reply
        • Helen Sedwick

          D Rayk, Even the courts are confused about fair use.
          Your use may be considered fair use even if you are selling it. The courts look beyond the sale to the actual use of the copyrighted material in context. Is is commentary, educational, etc. So don’t give up on the fair use argument too soon.
          It may be worth it to show your manuscript to a publishing attorney to get a evaluation of the risks.

          Reply
  21. M. Doe

    Hi Mrs Sedwick,

    I’m in the process of writing a non fictional book on a company followers its products and services.
    The overall tone is fairly critical of the company in question. Beside the libel concerns, I’d like to know two things about copyright infirngement, please.

    !. Can I use parts or entire comments (from one sentence to ten, sometimes with snippets […] inbetween) taken from/posted on discussion websites such as forums (or in the comment section under articles and reviews) by users (and identifying them of course) under the fair use doctrine?
    As I intend to quote users comments taken directly from the company website, and considering the (negative) tone of my book, asking for permission is out of the question.
    I will obviously place them in context and comment them. They are quite essential to prove and illustrate the claims/arguments and explanations I make in the book and thus needed. They could even help against libel maybe?

    Same question but about exerts from articles (and also comments under them), reviews or studies. Can I use quote from them on the fair use basis knowing that I couldn’t get authorization because of the negative depicting nature of my analysis and (my) comments on their articles, studies or reviews?

    If you could answer, that would be of great help, thank you.

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      M. Doe, All I can give is a general answer. Quoting others for purposes of discussion, commentary, criticism, education and the like is and should be protected as fair use. However, some companies (including churches) are quite aggressive about going after writers of critical pieces. They claim the critical pieces violate copyright and trademark rights, even if their claims will clearly fail in court. The Electronic Frontier Foundation features some of these companies in their Takedown Hall of Shame. https://www.eff.org/takedowns
      However, what you are writing sounds important. You should work with an attorney to educate yourself on what’s safe and what may cross the line into risky territory on a case by case basis. Best of luck to you.

      Reply
      • M. Doe

        I know it’s difficult for you to give a definite answer as an indvidual evaluation would be needed.

        But I still thank you for your answer and for the time you took for it.

        Just for a precision, though if possible :)

        The size of the quote is not a determinant factor in this particular case though? I read in different places that it shouldn’t exceed 10 to 15 words, which would make it impossible for my case as it wouldn’t be enough to express the point or claims or ideas made in the comments and then discussed by me.
        I need to quote like 3 to 5 sentences from a comment or if the comment is shorter, then the whole comment…

        The amount of quotes (It’s absolutely not a quote book but they maye represent a fith of the book total amount of pages, from different sources and websites… all commented on and inserted in a demonstration/explanation of the point they illustrate) isn’t an issue either?

        Even if you can’t answer to these last questions… Again,

        Thank you for your time and previous response.

        Reply
        • M. Doe

          Should’ve re-read my comment before hitting the “post comment” button, LOL
          Sorry for the poor syntax/grammar.

          Reply
          • Helen Sedwick

            M Doe, It’s more relevant to consider how much of the original work you are quoting rather than how much of your book consists of quotes. If you are quoting 20% of a particular work (such as a poem), than is less likely to be considered fair use. Use as little as you need to make your point.

  22. Jenny Woods

    My son who lives in the USA, six months ago was driven by his now ex partner to attempt suicide. She has been found to be a Narcissistic Sociopathic liar of the highest order and nothing about her life over the last 3 years has been the truth. We are going through a nasty custody battle and a domestic violence claim that she has brought against my son . He has all the evidence to prove his innocence but still she continues to lie. When all this is over I would love to write a book to tell others to get out of a narcissistic relationship before it destroys you. The facts I have to tell of a Narcissistic relationship are unbelievable! If my friends did not know me better they would think I was making it up. I understand I would have to change all names used within my book but would like to know if I am able to use quotes from the internet if I use where the quote is from at the bottom of the page, or in acknowledgement at the end of the book. The quotes will be followed to references of how my sons life has been related to the quote.
    This also relates to image/quotes that I see on social media (Facebook)

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Jenny, What a nightmare for your family.
      When using material found on the internet, keep in mind that just because it’s on the internet does not mean it’s free to use. Merely giving credit is not enough; you may need to get permission.
      To determine when you need permission, consider (i) whether the work is subject to copyright and (ii) whether your use could be considered fair use.
      My advice is to write the book, but before you publish it take a closer look at the material and decide whether you need permission or whether you really need to use it at all. It’s quite possible that by the time you finish your book, you may realize you don’t need to use material created by others. You will have your own original material.

      Reply
  23. David G.

    Thank you for this informative piece.

    I am writing a history book (non-fiction). Many of the books I want to quote are in French and I am translating these quotations into English for use in my work. If these are my original translations, does this constitute new work that is my own or should I seek permission from the authors of the original French texts? Also, I am sometimes quoting history books that are quoting others. Hypothetical example: there’s a history book by Jane Doe that quotes a newspaper called the Springfield Gazette from Jan. 1, 1896. I am quoting Jane Doe’s quotation of the Gazette rather than having discovered it in the Gazette myself. So, in a footnote I cite, “Springfield Gazette, Jan 1, 1896, cited in Doe 227,” with Doe’s work duly listed in my bibliography. The material I am quoting from Doe is just the portion from the Gazette and not any of Jane Doe’s commentary. I am adding my own commentary to the quotation. Would I have to get permission from Jane Doe for such a quotation?

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      David,
      Much of the material you describe may not be subject to copyright. Generally, the copyright has expired on anything first published before 1923. Also the factual content of the historic works is not protected by copyright, only how it is expressed is protected. So, if you are translating, compiling, and summarizing, you are further reducing the infringement risk.
      These are general guidelines only. If you still have concerns about specific portions of your manuscript, you should consult with an attorney.

      Reply
  24. James

    This is a slightly unusual one, which I have not seen mentioned; what if the person you are quoting is a convicted felon? Do they have any right to pursue you for quoting them?

    I ask because I am writing a book and am thinking of using a quote from a convicted criminal at the beginning of one of the chapters.

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      James,
      Being a convicted felon does not affect one’s copyright ownership. So you need to consider the other factors I discussed, including some of the comments.

      Reply
  25. Robert

    My novel quotes parts of a Moody Blues song, three times in the course of the book. I read that this usage is okay, as the lyrics actually mirror the story and so advance it.

    Is this understanding correct?

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Robert, It’s a case by case determination. To be on the safe side, it’s best to get permission.

      Reply
      • robert

        Thanks for the reply.

        Problem is, I’ve tried every way I can think of to contact the songwriter. No agent or manager listed. Record labels don’t respond to my emails. The songwriter’s website does not have any “contact” information.

        I have therefore tried, for over a year, in “good faith” to make contact and discuss permission. Does this to any degree work in my favor?

        Thanks again.

        Reply
        • Helen Sedwick

          Robert, Email me through my website with the song and lyrics. I’ll try to figure it out.

          Reply
  26. Elizabeth

    Hello Helen,
    I was wondering if a book of movie quotes was possible to create. If the films were analyzed along with the quotes would that make it fair use? If I were to need permission do I contact the distributors like I would for film stills?

    Reply
    • Elizabeth

      Also some of the quotes are lengthy, like a full paragraph. Does it make a difference if it is surrounded by original artwork or photography?

      Reply
      • Helen Sedwick

        Elizabeth, If you are using the quotes as part of a discussion and analysis of the films, then that is likely to be considered fair use. And yes, it does help if you add your own original art work, etc. Those add what are called “transformative” elements which further support a fair use defense.
        Keep in mind that no attorney can guarantee that your use is fair use. That would be up to a judge or jury. We can only lay out the factors to consider.

        Reply
  27. Julian

    Hi Helen,

    Hypothetical: Let’s say I want to self-publish a quote book of Barack Obama. However, the ‘quotes’ would be extracted from extemporaneous speeches recorded at his rallies. Am I allowed to crystallize portions of his stream of thought and create quotes for my book?

    I hope that was clear, thank you for your time!

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Julian,
      Interesting question. To determine whether your use would be infringing, ask yourself 2 questions: (i) is the work subject to copyright, and (ii) could your use be considered fair use.
      Regarding the first question, I suspect Obama has no copyright interest in any material he wrote or his speechwriters wrote while he was in office since it was created as part of his role as a governmental employee. For speeches given at other times, he may have a copyright interest if the quotes were written out or recorded.
      So then look at your use. If you are using the quotes for discussion, commentary, criticism, parody or educational purposes, then your use may be fair use. No guarantees, of course.
      The good news is I have not heard of Obama going after anyone for a copyright infringement claim.

      Reply
  28. Lily

    Hi Helen.
    This is a great article and very informative. Thank you! My question is: For a non-fiction/ self-help book, that has my own memoirs in them: May I freely put in an excerpt from the ‘minutes’ in my own divorce trial? May I freely quote content I personally received in my own e-mails (with the names deleted, to protect people’s privacy)?

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Lily, Your question raises both privacy and copyright issues.
      Regarding privacy and confidentiality, you may use information that was discussed or said in open court without little risk of a privacy claim. There have been some cases where people have claimed invasion of privacy when the court case was decades old and the information particularly damaging, but those claims are rare.
      Regarding emails, those may be considered private. If you disclose private information that is damaging or embarrassing, you could get yourself into legal hot water. So think carefully before you use any ugly info.
      Regarding copyright, I have never heard a case of anyone claiming a copyright interest in testimony. I suppose it could happen, particularly for written court filings, But even then, no copyright interest would attach to the factual information contained in testimony, or even the emails. There may be a copyright claim in how the information was organized or communicated, assuming it had some “expressive” elements (and was not just the facts). Sorry, for the legalese, but this is how lawyer’s think.
      Where you are not sure about quoting someone, then summarize or rewrite the material in your own words.

      Reply
      • Lily Sanders

        Okay Helen. Thanks.
        So instead of quoting the e-mails sent to me…I can simply mention them and put it in my own words…?

        Reply
  29. Daisy Herndon

    Thanks for the article.

    I’ve just completed a historical novel (wwII era but not war story per se) in which I use quotes, pictures, poems, hymns…a whole lot of different material including items from government agencies like the National Archives and Presidential libraries. I think most of the material is in public domain but I actually like the idea of making sure I’m not infringing on someone else’s work. Also, some of my content may be considered controversial so I would think some copyright holders may not want to be included (while others might pay me! lol)

    My questions: How would I go about finding copyright information for documents I’ve clipped or copied from Archives, say a poem in a local gazette?

    How can I tell if the source I’m quoting from is the actual original source?

    If quotes come from news articles or magazine articles– say a quote from Thurgood Marshall regarding a trial that was widely publicized– are they public domain or do I need to find the person who gave the quote, or the publication in which they are quoted?

    Also, should I assume that any photograph–say a picture of a rusty nail–is under copyright?

    Some of the photos in the National Archives have no names attached. How would I find out what copyright information is needed?

    That’s a lot, but it would really help to have your answer, and thanks again for this insightful and useful article.

    Miss Daisy

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Daisy,
      Unfortunately, you would need to make a case-by-case decision about the status of each piece and whether anyone is likely to care or complain about your use. On the Resources page of my website, there’s a free download on how to determine whether you need permission to use images and how the track down the copyright owner. That should help you with both images and text.

      Reply
      • Daisy Herndon

        Helen, Thank you. This is sooo helpful. Daisy

        Reply
  30. Sev Reinhardt

    Hi Helen. What about a book on insults that includes hundreds of standard insults that appear in various form on the internet without attribution? Are these fair use? For example: “Yo mama’s got more chins than a Chinese phone book”? I looked but there doesn’t appear to be any copyright on the phrase. But if there were, how would I know?

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Sev, Interesting question. I suspect the insults are so commonly used that no one claims a copyright interest. But I suggest that you do some research for each quote. It could be that a comedian wrote the insult and may claim ownership. There is a legal question on whether short jokes and quotes are protected by copyright, but some comedians are quite protective of their work. After all, it’s how they make their living.

      Reply
  31. Caroline Spinner

    I am writing a self help book and the beginning of some chapters have a quote which I have just easily found on the net, can I use them? Also if I quote say, 5 words from an Amos Oz novel is that okay? Each quote will stand alone on a page on its own.

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Caroline, There is no one answer to your question. You need to consider the factors I lay out in the post. Is the quote protected by copyright? Is your use fair use? Typically, using short quotes in acceptable. If the quotes are commonly used, then the author may have given up on trying to fight it. But there are no guarantees.

      Reply
  32. Ryan Segoria

    I am currently writing a fictional novel whose main character collects quotes in a small book and provides analysis and criticisms of said quotes. That being said, part of the novel relies his interpretation of quotes and I am unsure if this use is considered fair use. I do provide citations for each quote used.

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Ryan, I can’t say a definitive yes or no. What you describe certainly sounds like fair use to me; you are using the quotes for analysis and discussion of those quote, but the copyright owner might feel otherwise, sorry to say.

      Reply
      • Ryan Segoria

        Okay, thank you

        Reply
      • JP

        What about if a character of a novel likes so much a (real) movie that, from time to time, quotes some lines from that movie?

        Reply
  33. kate Hamilton

    Excellent article and very useful to me who has just finished “Irish words of wisdom our Elders used to say and other Treasures found along the way.” Thank you very much….

    Reply
  34. Donna Rayk

    Hi Helen,

    Thanks so much for this; super helpful in a world of more writers and self-publishers. Yay!

    We’re an educational kids company and we’re writing a book that teaches kids all about birds. It will be included in a kit. To make the book more compelling for kids and parents, we’d like to include a few lines about flight from Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”. Since this quote would go on the back cover, it seems based on your advice above that we shouldn’t do it. But since this will be part of an educational (yet commercial) book, could you argue that it’s fair use? If not, in your experience is it very expensive to get permission for something like this? Wondering if we should bother.

    Thanks so much for this great article!

    D

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Donna, Good question.
      Even though your book is educational, your proposed use of the quote is more promotional than educational. You are “borrowing” the charm and familiarity of the Seuss rhyme to increase the appeal of your book, so I don’t think your proposed use is clearly educational. In contrast, if you were using the quote to discuss its rhythm or images that would be more clearly educational.
      For permission, look at the book itself for the publisher’s info. Start by asking them how to get permission.
      Let us know how it goes.

      Reply
      • DR

        Great, thanks for the reply and helpful advice. We may replace the quote but will keep you updated if we decide to go the permission route!

        Donna

        Reply
  35. Cynthia Singer

    Hello,
    I am writing a book along the lines of inspirational/self discovery. I wanted to use a short motivational phrase that I heard on video podcasts/you tube from motivational speakers such as Tony Robbins/ Les Brown- just some short phrases – do I need to get permission to use them? And if I am able to use them, do I just credit them by attributing the phrase at that point in my book? Thanks

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Cynthia, Whenever you use someone else’s words, you need to consider the risks and issues I describe in the article. While using short phrases as part of a larger work is generally acceptable, there are no guarantees. Giving attribution alone may not be enough.
      Sorry for the vague response, but I can’t predict whether Tony Robbins, Les Brown or anyone will make a fuss about the unauthorized use of their words. They may be completely delighted, so long as your give them attribution. Then again, they may want to extract payment for every quote.

      Reply
  36. Denise

    I am actually in the process of writing a book on healing the body mind and spirit! I have gone through so many traumatic events since 1994 . I want to use my own experience to help others to heal in their lives who have experienced similar problems in their own lives. I however have several mother Teresa quotes that have inspired me along the way that I want to share with the readers of my book so that they can use the quotes to help them. If I get to a part where I use a quote and put mother Teresa under the quote will I be covered by the laws or is there something else I need to do so I don’t find myself in trouble for useing these inspirational quotes! I don’t want to leave out of my book?

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Denise, A very interesting question and one I needed to do a little digging to answer. It appears that the Order of Nuns founded by Mother Teresa is claiming a copyright in her writings and a trademark interest in her name.
      That being said, her quotes are widely used on Pinterest and everywhere else. The nuns must have a hard time keeping up with all those users!
      I suggest you keep the quotes short and relevant to your topic and don’t use them on your cover.

      Reply
  37. Sandra Judnick

    I just published an e-book; my work is a memoir detailing my experiences in the military. I started this project in 1970 and waited until retirement to complete it. My question is since that time there have been many changes in the military so in order to be credible I added quotes from a few sources to substantiate what I am talking about. Some of the quotes are educational and others involve military people’s comments about the things I am trying to describe. The years vary from 1998,2000,2005,2007, 2012, 2014&15. Is it ok to use these quotes or will I be subject to copyright infringement?

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Sandra, This is a kind of question I simple can’t answer is a satisfactory way. You have to consider whether the quotes are protected by copyright, and if so, whether you have a strong argument that your use is fair use. Is it possible to get permission for some or all the quotes?

      Reply
  38. Taylor

    So if I use a quote from Aristotle or Jane Austin a short sentence or two as a Chapter title, I’m okay right?

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Yes. The copyrights on anything written by Aristole or Jane Austin have expired and now their works are in the public domain. They may be used without permission.

      Reply
  39. Dan

    Hi: Wondering if you have any opinion about using re-using quotes from guests who have appeared on my podcast in a book? It’s a business publication which is of my own writing but supplemented by quotes from others (newspaper style) that are already in the public space on my podcast recordings, and in some cases, the associated writeups/blog posts about those episodes (also written by me). Thanks!

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Dan, Most likely it’s fine, since the guests consented to being on your show. However, it would be a good practice for you to have you guests sign a release giving you permission to quote them, edit their comments, etc. You can find sample forms by searching for “interview release.”

      Reply
  40. Renee M

    Helen,
    Your article has been amazingly helpful after hours of researching my dilemma. I have compiled a sort of journal prompts book illustrated by me and infused with my own thoughts. I have added quotes to support the theme of each page. It is more in “sketchnotes” form if you are familiar with that. The quotes inspired the integrated drawings in which almost intertwine with the words. I never gave thought to copyright until near completion. I went back and removed quotes that I could do without and replaced with my own interprepation. Some quotes, the authors are long deceased. That leaves me with 18 quotes to follow up on. After reviewing them for length, I think I can ignore permission on most, but will need to pursue permission for a few. Do you have any comment regarding fair use or tranformation in regard to the manner I used the quotes contained within artwork? The end intent is to sell the book.

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Renee, When quotes are used within artwork, the use may be considered fair use because of the transformative elements. But the cases are not predictable (and are always costly). For that reason, when in doubt, try to get permission.

      Reply
  41. Susan Uttendorfsky

    Thank you SO MUCH for this. Many authors don’t realize that just citing the source is enough. Now I have a great article to point to, showing that the idea of getting permission is not just my crazy idea! ;)

    Reply
  42. Bruce Louis Dodson

    Well said.

    Reply
  43. Lexi Revellian

    I’m surprised you quote Ashleigh Brilliant’s “I may not be perfect but parts of me are excellent” as copyrighted, since it seems to be itself a quotation from the well-known Curate’s Egg cartoon dating from 1895 – see here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curate%27s_egg

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Ha ha. I guess there are no original ideas.
      Brilliant was going after someone who was putting his quotes on merchandise, such as t-shirts or mugs. Putting quotes on merchandise is commercial and will rarely be considered fair use. Brilliant may not have prevailed if his quote were on Facebook or a social media posting.

      Reply
  44. paula cappa

    “Get permission from the owners of all quotes.” Absolutely, and most professional writers know this. I had this issue with my book Greylock. I had lots of quotations from poets, authors, and some excerpts from the text of Raymond Chandler novels (not in public domain). Fair use can be tricky, so I contacted the publisher of the Chandler novels to ask if I could use the quotations and excerpts from his novels. It took some time and processing but they agreed it was ‘fair use’; they insisted I put permissions statement in front matter of my book though. So, of course I did. They didn’t charge me any fees. In the Look Inside feature on Amazon, you can view the permissions statements they dictated. I was glad to have the Chandler publishers support my use. Getting permissions is essential most of the time.

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Paula, Thank you for pointing out that it is not impossible to get permission to use quotes. In fact, it can be surprisingly easy. Many writers are flattered, and they appreciate that you had the good sense to ask.

      Reply
  45. Michael W. Perry

    Quote from Ernie Zelinski: If legal departments of traditional publishers are not concerned about using short quotations, why should I be concerned about using short quotations in my many self-published books?”

    How big is your self-publishing law department? If it’s not the size of one at a traditional publisher, you’ve got reason to worry. The smaller you are, the more likely those lawyers will threaten to sue. For them, a nasty cease and desist letter could hardly be cheaper. They have boilerplate letters sitting on their computers. But dealing adequately with their cease and desist letter could cost you hundreds of dollars.

    I will add an upside, a kind of security through obscurity. The less visible your book is, the less likely your quotes will be discovered, particularly if you promotional materials don’t promise “Inspirational quotes from the famous W. E. Sueu.

    I’d add another factor that’s less often stated. Some literary estates make quite a bit of money giving permission for quotes. They’re more likely to sue than an author or estate that’s delighted to get mentioned. One of the former that I know of protected itself so well that its manager told me she had four lawsuits going on at the same time. And wins from one victory, including legal fees, give them money to spend on their next lawsuit.

    Before you quote, you might want to research and see just how prone an author or literary estate is to sue. If they’ve got a nasty reputation, you might want to stay away.

    –Michael W. Perry

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Michael,
      “Security through obscurity. The less visible your book is, the less likely your quotes will be discovered.” Painful, but true.

      Reply
      • Anthony Felix

        But if your book goes online, to check it for possible similarities is easy peasy. When there is a person, truly concerned about this, s/he could run your whole book through a plagiarism checker and examine the results. Well-known checker e.g. Unplag, will show quotes that you’ve used without a permission.

        Reply
  46. Ernie Zelinski

    All of what you say is no doubt true. I am not going to get concerned about my vast use of short quotations in my many books, however.

    First, I have had books published by traditional publishers that used many quotations. For my book “The Joy of Not Working” published by Ten Speed Press (now owned by Penguin/Random House), the editors and legal department asked me to get permission to use letters from readers about previous editions of the book, but the editors and legal department were not concerned about the 100 to 200 quotations I used in the book. If legal departments of traditional publishers are not concerned about using short quotations, why should I be concerned about using short quotations in my many self-published books?

    Second, the vast majority of the sources of quotations are going to be thrilled that someone is quoting them. For example, recently I discovered the following webpage (that I have absolutely nothing to do with) where someone used around 100 quotations from my many books. Not only that, they used a photo for which they did not have permission to use.

    https://www.azquotes.com/author/63515-Ernie_J_Zelinski

    Am I going to be upset about this and want to sue for copyright violation? Definitely not! I am flattered that someone would go to all this trouble to provide free promotion for me.

    Besides, Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “All our best thoughts come from others.” Come to think of it, Emerson stole that line from me — and I am not going to sue him for having done so!

    Reply
    • Helen Sedwick

      Ernie, Yes, you hit on one of the problems of using short quotes. There are no hard and fast rules on what is permitted and what is not. Some publishers are more risk adverse than others. Some copyright owners are more aggressive than others. It’s difficult to predict which quotes will get a writer into trouble and which will not.
      My goal is to explain some of these risks to writers. What they do with this information is up to each writer.

      Reply

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